Good luck keeping your game face on while watching Queen of Katwe, the uplifting tale based on the true story of a world-class chess champion from a slum in Uganda. Directed by Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding) and starring newcomer Madina Nalwanga as real-life chess champ Phiona Mutesi, David Oyelowo (Selma) as her mentor Robert Katende, and Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) as her mother Harriet, the film arrives on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere on Jan. 10, and on Blu-ray, DVD, and On-Demand on Jan. 31. But you don’t have to wait for the home-video release to get a look at one of the film’s deleted scenes. Exclusively debuting in the Yahoo Movies player above, you’ll see Nair introduce the clip of a joyful dancing scene suddenly interrupted by the economic reality of life for Harriet and her children in Katwe.
For more insights into the film, we chatted with Kenya-raised Nyong’o before the new year, to talk about chess, chance, and why she thinks Queen of Katwe is the perfect movie to watch with your mates.
The in-home release of Queen of Katwe is packed with bonus features, taking viewers behind the scenes with filmmakers and introducing them to the real-life characters who inspired the movie. What are you excited to share?
I’m excited about Queen of Katwe being a part of the home theater. It’s a great family movie that I think will thrive and do well with the gatherings of loved ones. It’s an uplifting film, it’s a funny film, it’s a touching film. Hopefully, it’ll be an easy one that you can pop in on a nice cold Sunday. When I was a child, I would watch my favorite VHS [tapes] over and over again, like The Sound of Music. I grew up with lots of siblings, and so I really related to the von Trapp children.
The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has talked about “the danger of a single story” of Africa. It’s a huge and diverse continent, and there should be diverse stories. Queen of Katwe certainly shows a different side. Is that something that attracted you to this film?
Yeah, and Chimamanda said it in that same speech that it’s about having more than one reference to a people. A story like this in the hands of someone like Mira Nair — who loves Uganda and respects it, and sees its depth, and shows that nuance in this film — is a step in the right direction. Yes, this is an African story. It is specifically a Ugandan story, and a Katwe story. It is specifically a Phiona Mutesi story, and we get that. We get those layers, we can embrace the specificity, and in so doing, it lends itself to the universal, which all good stories do. You can see yourself in Phiona’s circumstances even as you sit in Cincinnati.
Related: ‘Queen of Katwe’: Film Review
What did you yourself learn about Ugandan culture while you were filming?
I learned they make way more sounds than Kenyans. They have different sounds that… I don’t know how you would refer to them; they’re expressions that are not words. There are also jeers and intonations of the voice that mean all sorts of different things. It’s a very, very intricate way of expressing yourself, and it’s in the film.
You convey such emotion and depth as Harriet, but so much is subtext. Was that challenging?Well, this is where my respect for writing deepened. This is a story that was told simply, but had a lot of complexities. With Harriet, you’re dealing with an illiterate woman, and the danger of that is to make her simplistic. And yet, being illiterate does not equal being stupid or simple-minded, and so, for that, the writer gets the credit. There is a scene when Harriet approaches Robert Katende and sits him down to say, “My daughter has tasted your world, and now she’s unhappy in hers.” For me as an actress, those are real markers of an emotional journey, of a character’s development.
What did you learn about motherhood?
I learned motherhood is tough. I apologized a lot to my own mother because when you are a mother, you have to basically provide for and protect your chicks, and at some point, you have to let them go. [I learned] how difficult that is, that a part of yourself is basically choosing to walk away from you. And it has its own ideas. Just to put myself in my mother’s shoes humbled me, and terrified me. Recognizing what Harriet had to deal with, of course my mother came to mind when I considered the ways in which I challenged her, the ways in which I rebelled, and what that cost her. But I was definitely focused on the very real woman I was playing, which was Harriet, whom I had the opportunity to meet and talk to.
Have you been in touch with her recently?
I was in Uganda for the premiere, and Harriet was there, so I saw her before the film. But I didn’t see her after, so I actually have no idea what she thought of my portrayal of her. I mean, I think no news is good news. Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende, I’ve heard from them, I’ve experienced the film with them, and they have thoroughly embraced it. It moved them: They’re reliving things, and to hear them say how their own story touched them and opened their eyes to who they are and what they’ve achieved is really a blessing.
Did you play chess growing up? If so, how has the film changed your relationship with it?
Well, I didn’t have to learn chess for the movie. In fact, I had to unlearn it, and I was more than happy to do that. I had to have no relationship with a chessboard, to not understand what one piece did. I play chess, so that was a challenge in itself. I’ve always played chess. I don’t remember when I learned. It was just a part of my childhood. I know how the pieces move, but I’m not Phiona Mutesi. I went to a Boys & Girls Club while we were doing promotions for the film. I was challenged [to a game] by a six-year-old, and she beat me.
Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo’s Emotional Reactions to Seeing ‘Queen of Katwe’: